by Nene Adams ©2001 - All rights reserved

"She kept a stir in tower and trench,
That brawling, boisterous Scottish wench,
Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate."
--- From a ballad attributed to the Earl of Salisbury

She was called "Black Agnes" because of her dusky complexion and dark hair, but the lady's fierce defense against a determined foe added considerable luster and fame to the nickname. Lady Agnes Randolph had loads of attitude - while she never struck a swordblow or took to the battlefield, she did show true Amazonian courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Lady Agnes was not of Scottish royal blood herself, but she did have noble connections. Her mother was Isabel Stewart, a cousin of the High Steward of Scotland, Walter. This Walter married Marjorie Bruce, whose son became Robert II, the first of the Stewart monarchs. Sir Thomas Randolph, her father, was first Earl of Moray - a hero of the Scottish wars of independence and the man named Regent after the death of Robert the Bruce. He was the nephew of King Robert through the first marriage of the king's mother, Christian, Countess of Carrick. Randolph died in 1332, leaving behind two sons and two daughters. One of these was Lady Agnes. When she came of age in 1320, she married Patrick Dunbar, ninth Earl of Dunbar and March.

The English King Edward II was trying to conquer Scotland, having inherited his father's war - hence the Scottish wars of independence, Mel Gibson in blue face paint, and lots of hairy knees in kilts. Robert the Bruce kicked him out of Scotland after the English were defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The wars continued, however, as the English were determined to get their hands on this prime piece of real estate in order to rule a united Britain. The English tried again in 1322, and in 1338, they were still trying.

Castle Dunbar, the formidable fortress of the Earls of March, was considered the key to Scotland on the southeast border. Built on rocks that projected out into the sea, the building was reckoned nearly impregnable - but this was before the advent of heavy firepower. After Bannockburn, Patrick Dunbar gave refuge to King Edward II and helped him escape. The king sailed away in a fishing boat, leaving Patrick behind to face the music.

Eventually, Robert the Bruce forgave his wayward Earl, and made Patrick the governor of Berwick Castle. In 1333, sick and tired of trying to defend Castle Dunbar against the English, Patrick had it leveled to the ground. Unfortunately, the new king of England, Edward III, forced him to rebuild it at his own expense, and used it as a barracks for English forces. Four years later, in 1338, the castle passed back into Patrick's possession. Now the story of Black Agnes begins to take shape - a moment in history that was spoken of by Sir Walter Scott: "From the record of Scottish heroes, none can presume to erase her."

On January 13, 1338, English soldiers headed by William Montague, the Earl of Salisbury, arrived outside the gates of Castle Dunbar (near the fallen town of Berwick, which remains in English possession to this day.) Patrick Dunbar was away, fighting with the Scottish army, and his wife Lady Agnes had been left in charge. No doubt the Earl thought this would be an easy victory. He was considered one of the best and ablest commanders of his day. Alas, he had reckoned without the valiant Black Agnes.

The lady refused to surrender, and has been attributed as saying in response to the Earl's request:

"Of Scotland's King I haud my house,
He pays me meat and fee,
And I will keep my gude auld house,
While my house will keep me
."

She had only a handful of men left by her husband, but Lady Agnes shut the castle gates. Whatever the cost, she was determined to stick it out rather than meekly acquiesce to the hated English enemy. Assuming the duties of commander, she rallied the tiny garrison to defense, and inspired all within Castle Dunbar by her example.

The Earl of Salisbury began his engagement with catapults, which hurled great rocks and lead shot at the walls. When this phase of the campaign was over, Lady Agnes had her maids dress in their Sunday best. Led by their mistress to the ramparts, the women boldly dusted the marks of battle from the stones, thus showing the Earl that they were not at all concerned. Modern readers may take this as a gesture equivalent to giving Salisbury "the finger." Lady Agnes would not only thwart Salisbury's plans, but she intended to do so with as much insult given to the Earl as possible.

Now the Earl had an ace up his sleeve. He summoned his secret weapon - a mighty battering ram on wheels, roofed over to protect the soldiers who rolled it right up to the gate. Lady Agnes also had something up her sleeve, and it wasn't a lace hanky. She had previously ordered a whacking great boulder (one of those which Salisbury had used against the castle) to be saved for just such a contingency. At her signal, the boulder was dropped over the walls. It struck the roof of the battering ram, smashing it into smithereens, and causing the enemy to flee for their lives. As they ran, Black Agnes jeered at them from high atop the walls of Castle Dunbar.

Twice burned, the Earl was nevertheless determined to do whatever it took to bring the castle and its formidable lady to their knees - metaphorically speaking. He changed his plans, thinking that perhaps intrigue might suit his purposes better than brute force. Salisbury attempted to bribe the guard who watched the main entrance of Castle Dunbar, offering the man a substantial fortune if he would either leave the gate unlocked, or somehow ensure his army could enter without complication. The guard appeared to accept the bargain, but the Earl did not know that this man had confessed all to Lady Agnes.

The plot called for Salisbury and a small group of English soldiers to enter the castle at a certain time. At the fateful hour, observing that the gate had been opened, the Earl led his forces onward. Upon reaching the gate, Salisbury was overtaken by one of his men, named Copeland. As soon as Copeland (who had been mistaken for the Earl), walked inside, the portcullis clanged shut, trapping the man and locking him in the castle.

Black Agnes observed all this from the ramparts. As the roundly defeated Salisbury went back to his encampment, she sneered and mocked him - "Fare thee well, Montague, I meant that you should have supped with us, and support us in upholding the castle from the English!" And the siege continued.

One day, when the Earl was riding around the castle with his second-in-command, he was spotted by Lady Agnes, who saw a chance to end matters there and then. She called upon one of her archers, and bade him kill both men. The arrow barely missed Salisbury, who clapped heels to his horse's sides and rode hell-for-leather out of range. His second was not so lucky. The missile went straight into his chest, penetrating three layers of mail and a thick leather jacket, and killed him. The Earl was heard to comment sarcastically, "Black Agnes' love-shafts go straight to the heart!"

Having completely surrounded Castle Dunbar with his forces, Salisbury thought he might just starve out the defenders. Their supplies were running low. The Earl smelled victory. However, some of the townspeople of Dunbar were sympathetic to Lady Agnes' cause and not adverse to putting a spoke into English wheels. On a dark and moonless night, several boats loaded with supplies made their way to the castle's seaward side - a blind spot in Salisbury's plans. They relieved the famine with this delivery. The next morning, Lady Agnes had a fresh loaf of bread and some wine delivered to the Earl with her compliments, and loudly proclaimed the gift to all within earshot. Another victory for Black Agnes' side!

The Earl was desperate. Lady Agnes' brother - John Randolph, the Earl of Moray - had been captured by the English and was a prisoner of war. Salisbury sent for him and marched the unfortunate man close to the castle. Making sure that the lady could see and hear everything that was going on, Salisbury forced Moray to call out to his sister. Moray told Lady Agnes that Salisbury would kill him if she did not surrender immediately.

Lady Agnes was not daunted one whit. She pointed out to Salisbury that if he did, indeed, kill her brother - who had no children or heirs - then she, herself, would inherit his lands and titles. Neener, neener, neener! The Earl, believing Black Agnes' greed was greater than her love for a sibling, was frustrated once more. He did not kill Moray, but sent him back to prison. In a side note, the Earl of Moray passed away in 1347 without issue, leaving all his wealth and title to his sister - the heroic Black Agnes!

The siege continued for five months, with Black Agnes holding the upper hand and mocking the English at every turn. Finally, Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie - who had been roaming the Scottish countryside with a band of followers - heard about the gallant lady's little problem. He decided to aid the defenders. Ramsay marched to the coast with forty men and acquired two boats. Under the cover of darkness, they made anchor just offshore from Castle Dunbar. Ramsay knew he could avoid detection and get into the castle via a half-submerged gate on the seaward side.

Once within the walls, he mustered the lady's forces and joined them with his own. Ramsay led a surprise attack through the main gate, which sent the English scattering in all directions. Disheartened by this bold maneuver, and probably tired of listening to Black Agnes' mocking comments, the weary Earl accepted a truce. On June 10, 1338, he ordered his forces to withdraw, leaving Lady Agnes once more in sole possession of her castle. As he marched away, Salisbury supposedly composed a song about the lady who had defeated him (see the quote that begins this essay), however there is no proof that he was the actual author.

Lady Agnes died in 1369* without issue. Her husband, Patrick, led the Scottish army at the fateful Battle of Durham in October 1346. He escaped with considerable losses. Patrick Dunbar died just a few months after his brave lady.

She is called Black Agnes, the Savior of Dunbar Castle. With fortitude, courage and iron determination, she held a key defense of Scotland out of English hands. Outnumbered, outgunned, facing starvation and worse, Lady Agnes never believed that surrender was an option. She held out to the bitter end (bitter for the Earl of Salisbury, anyway), and showed admirable panache. By her valiant example, kept her people's spirits high, and ultimately came out the winner.

Lady Agnes Randolph is still honored in Scotland as a true heroine - and we can do no better than to sing her praises today.

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*Correction thanks to Webmaster at Clan Dunbar

 

 

 


 

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